Orwell and Biography

Bernard Crick

The word ‘biography’ can create as many different expectations as the word ‘Orwell’. It can mean a memorial or a panegyric, it can mean a hatchet job, it can simply mean a good read (Wyndham Lewis once said that good biographies are like novels); or it can mean something scholarly, academic, definitive: a dull attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – as far as that is possible. I have no wish to say that popular biography cannot be truthful. I merely point to the paradox that the popular biographer himself does not know if he is being truthful, unless somebody else has, not sketched a character, but done the hard graft of long and patient factual investigation into the circumstances and events of a life. Strictly speaking, a truthful popular biography can only be a simplified and shortened version of an existing scholarly biography, just as all school history books are taken from academic monographs. I am proud that my life of Orwell is already being recycled and usefully plagiarised in this way, especially by people who seem to have a greater intuitive grasp of his ‘essential character’ than I have, though they are civil enough to praise my capacity for hard work.

More seriously, what is biography about? I deliberately called my work a ‘life’ of Orwell because, as I argued in the book, English ‘biography’, since the time of Dr Johnson, has come to imply the portrait of a character. The main business of a biographer has often been thought to be that of ‘getting inside’ his subject, ‘grasping the inwardness’, ‘revealing the true personality’ – in a word, empathy. And this is why, presumably, Wyndham Lewis – that famously tolerant and empathetic man – preferred the novelist to the historian as biographer. I, too, set out with this general view, which I now hold to be romantic. I’m not wholly sure how I came to change my mind, only that I did so as I became impressed with the incompleteness and ambiguity of much of the evidence and – if wanted to make good some well-established readings of Orwell’s character – with the need to suppress contrary evidence.

Critics are entitled to believe that, in justifying an external, almost alienated approach, I was rationalising a defeat. Several reviews, not merely by old friends of Orwell’s, paid great tribute to my energy, industry, sense of period, grasp of history (compliments that might have been less fulsome, incidentally, had the resources of the Orwell Archive been more widely known), before saying either that I failed to paint a credible character, or that what I did show was not what they remembered. But I’m unrepentant, and though sentimentally I would love to have met Orwell – he feels like a lost lover whom I never knew – yet for the stern purposes of biography I can see advantages in having no personal memories. For I must say publicly that, while each of these reviewers was able to paint in a few paragraphs a more coherent picture of Orwell’s character than I could manage in a quarter of a million words, yet these miniatures were each quite different from the other and each tinged with autobiography.

The point is an epistemological one: can we really know the character even of people we are very close to, friends, loved ones and family, in such a way that we can surmise accurately (as adolescents torture each other) what other people are ‘really thinking’; and can we use such ‘knowledge’ of character to fill gaps in the record of what he or she was doing in the many years before they came into our life, or to ascertain what their motivations then were? And yet English biographers, famous for their good judgment of people (which in itself may be a national stereotype, vice or collective delusion), following the good Dr Johnson – ‘I knew that poor wretch Savage’ (probably they drank together on two or three occasions) – commonly do just this: infer fact from fancy. We can become fair judges of each other’s probable behaviour, while allowing for a good many surprises and misunderstandings.

No names, no pack drill, but if I heard once on my trail I heard a dozen times something like this: ‘I really didn’t know Orwell awfully well; to tell the truth, Professor, we only met over lunch or drinks three or four times by way of business; but somehow, I really cannot explain, very different people you know, but somehow we clicked at once ...’ When, occasionally, this kind of understanding could be put into words specific enough to mean something, all I could do was to place it alongside other, different revelations, and puzzle. If it could be counted as evidence at all, it was only by default – if it related to some problematic event in Orwell’s life for which documentation was lacking. Why did he go to Burma? Why did he go to Spain, or the Jura? Why did he want a second marriage so much? I agree with Brecht: if people really want to know what the true interpretation of Hamlet is, I’d rather they made up their own minds than that the actor and producer should try to solve the enigma and smooth it all out.

It is possible to give, as far as surviving evidence allows, a reasonably objective and reliable account of how someone led their life. Even then, the evidence may overwhelm one, so of course one makes judgments as to what was important: in Orwell’s case, I chose (or rather I came to find myself choosing), not very surprisingly, to concentrate on his attempts to write and publish his books – as Marxists and structuralists would say, on his ‘literary production’. If Malcolm Muggeridge had carried out his original commission to write a biography of Orwell, it would have been an account of the struggles of a Christian without God to find a cause; while the gentle and well-meaning Sir Richard Rees, who had known Orwell very well, did write a book about Orwell as ‘almost a saint’. If one must say that biographies are about character rather than about the lives people led, then at least it is prudent to adopt, as philosophers would say, a soft rather than hard usage of the concept. Consider this dialogue about Lydgate in Middlemarch:

  ‘There is no proof in favour of the man outside his own consciousness and assertion.’

  ‘Oh how cruel!’ said Dorothea, elasping her hands. ‘And would you not like to be the one person who believed in that man’s innocence, if the rest of the world belied him? Besides, there is a man’s character beforehand to speak for him.’

  But, my dear Mrs Casaubon,’ said Mr Farebrother, smiling gently at her ardour, ‘character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing.’

If I concede that there is ‘character’ in Farebrother’s sense, then I must remind four good old friends of Orwell’s, who have all said kind things about my work except that I miss his character, that they only knew his ‘living and changing character’ relatively late in his life. And that what he told each of them about his earlier life and states of mind is not conclusive evidence: our own interpretations of the past live and change, one reveals different things about oneself to different people. Even if one never lies, as a lady once said to me, one seldom tells the whole truth. And their own readings of his character, not surprisingly, in the light of their diverse backgrounds, viewpoints and talents, differ. Friends see friends as part of their own lives. Part of how we now see Orwell is through the very diversity of the testimony of all who knew him. I presumed a reader who might, for once, like being left alone with divergent testimonies. The externalising, the distancing, the alienation-effect, if you like, became deliberate: indeed, I now think it the only proper stance for a biographer to take if he is interested in telling a true tale about a life, rather than sitting in final, god-like judgment on character or achievement.

Preconceptions about character, even on the part of those who knew the subject well, can end up contradicting the actual course of the life. Sonia Orwell was genuinely convinced that it was not in his real character to be so political, and that in turning to her, he was showing the dominance of his literary over his political self. Even if one leaves aside the question of whether ‘polities’ versus ‘literature’ is not a false disjunction – he said that above all else he wanted to make ‘political writing into an art’ – as well as the question of whether there might not have been other good reasons why a man would turn to Sonia, her view involves what I call in my book a kind of ‘speculative teleology’: what he would have done had he lived differently or longer, the logic of the ‘real character’, not the grossly empirical course of the actual life. Sonia wrote in her Introduction to the Collected Essays: ‘If political events had made less impact on him, he would have lived in the country, written a book – preferably a novel – once a year, pursued his interest in the essay form and, when money was badly lacking, done straightforward book reviews which, he said, he enjoyed writing ... War made him a political activist.’ But if she meant the Second World War, he was by then already a political activist; and if she meant the Spanish War, that was a war that he chose to fight in, went out of his way to fight in: he didn’t simply visit Spain like Connolly, Auden and Spender. I’m not quoting this passage to show that Sonia was wrong in her judgment of his ‘character’, making it an article of faith among her own friends that she would have saved him for ‘literature’ from ‘polities’: rather I quote it to show the danger of all such judgments based on ‘character’. Since she was so clear what his real character was, several important or revealing political essays were discarded from the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, as being untypical, inferior or repetitive.

A ‘character study’ is simply not the same as a ‘life’. Koestler has recently regretted that I failed in those laborious 473 pages to grasp Orwell’s character as well as Mr Peter Lewis did in his recent and sprightly picture book (which, incidentally, largely reflected Sonia’s view of the true George, though no reviewers noticed this). Perhaps so. I’m only irritated that Koestler failed to notice why I was so explicitly sceptical of the concept of character. Let me try again. I have talked to Koestler once at length and twice briefly and have read most of his English works: from this I could write a decent character sketch, certainly good enough for a Times obituary or an Observer profile: but this would be as far from a life or a biography as Hyperion to a satyr. A life must be a true account of what somebody did. Mr Iain Hamilton has recently written a biography of Koestler which did not bother to look for any primary sources whatever for the first 35 years of Koestler’s life, on the fatuous grounds that Koestler had himself written autobiographies covering that period. Surely a prime duty of any writer’s biographer is to examine critically the relationship between the writer’s own autobiographical writings and what actually happened. The distance between these two things may not discredit the man so much as enhance the writer, and may show some critics to be singularly naive in accepting the professional writer’s use of the first person as a necessary attestation of public truth. With Koestler, as with Orwell, scepticism and research are crucial.

Sonia Orwell, as is well known, was very upset both by some of my judgments and by my ‘putting Orwell in the box’, she said, as if it was wrong to doubt the literal truth of anything he wrote in the first person. Such scepticism seemed to me the elementary duty of any scholarly biographer. One of the practical difficulties of modern biography in general is with the owners of the copyright, especially widows, sisters, descendants. This has been the case, for instance, with Nietzsche, Wagner, Kipling, Eliot. To be fair to Sonia Orwell, when she asked me to do the biography, quite out of the blue, not knowing me nor I her, she agreed to my firm condition that as well as complete access to the papers, I should have an absolute and prior waiver of copyright so that I could quote what I liked and write what I liked. That she signed such a contract should be a noble example to what she would racily call ‘the widows’ union’.

There are, of course, other difficulties specific to contemporary biography. The advantage of having living witnesses is partially balanced by the personal involvement of some of them, particularly if they are writers themselves, in the reputation of the subject. Moreover publication of the book will itself stimulate both new witnesses and unexpected reactions from old witnesses to the text. For instance, Georges Mikes and André Deutsch, no less, had been sitting on yet another authentic rejection of Animal Farm by a leading publisher. I had thought that Reg Groves, who worked in the Hampstead bookshop immediately before Orwell and was one of the original ‘Balham succession’, the founders of British Trotskyism, was long dead. His testimony strengthens the view that Orwell’s conversion to socialism was far less sudden than Orwell himself had implied. The British Anarchists kindly sent me a collective review that added considerably to knowledge of Orwell’s ambivalent contacts with them in the Animal Farm period. I knew that Orwell’s consultant physician at University College Hospital was dead and all medical records destroyed: but I very foolishly forgot that the young houseman does the day-to-day work, and he wrote to me from his retirement with important new evidence. Apparently Orwell didn’t stand a chance: but they did not tell him, or Sonia.

The nature of George Orwell’s own writings raises three particular problems for a biographer. First, he was unusually secretive or perhaps simply private, liking to keep different groups of friends apart, for instance, and yet he let his pen-name develop in the Tribune days into a public character – ‘good old George’ or ‘that damned Orwell stirring it again’. Secondly, his fame came late, but then came fast: many famous writers, who only knew him well after the publication of Animal Farm (so, if well, also relatively briefly), committed themselves to critical judgments in print long before it was possible to read his books and essays as a whole; and they also committed themselves to broad statements about his development in the Twenties and Thirties which were not based on first-hand observation. Thirdly, the nature of some of his best writings raises problems of ‘genre’: are they fact or are they fiction? It has long been obvious and accepted that his first four novels contain much autobiography. But if one shows fictional elements in ‘Such, such were the joys’, or in Down and Out in Paris and London, is one to be accused of doubting the word of ‘the crystal spirit’, of destroying his reputation for integrity and honesty, or is one paying tribute to a craftsman less naive than some of the Chelsea and Bloomsbury literary friends of the days of his fame enthusiastically assumed him to be?

Orwell valued his privacy greatly and was not given to self-revealing monologues, even to girlfriends. Moreover, he had no thought, until very close to the end, that he would be a household name throughout the world. To say that he was careless about keeping his papers is pure hindsight, for why should he have had any care? He was not born to the literary purple and while he wanted to live by his novels, he showed no signs of thinking himself a great man or a great writer. Some of the Bloomsbury group, for instance, seem to have exuded letters and secreted papers even before their first works were published, in the calm expectation that one day they would be useful to their family biographer. Not so George. If he became famous with Animal Farm, consider that nobody thought to record his voice – though he had worked for the BBC, and did scripts for them later on, including a bad adaptation of that very novel. Old hands told me that it would have seemed a comic disproportion: ‘old George’ was simply one of the boys who had a very lucky break with one book – disc recordings for the archive were only set up for the very great, like Wells and Shaw, or for people absolutely assured of a permanent place in the history of English letters, like Sir Max Beerbohm and J. B. Priestley. Orwell’s privacy was not pathological, it was perfectly normal: but it makes things difficult for a biographer. However, he was not seeking to help a biographer, nor expecting one until the last years of his life when the reception of 1984 both impressed and worried him.

Frankly I do not think that the ‘Eric Blair/George Orwell’ disjunction need trouble one greatly. Even Stansky and Abrams had dropped it by their second volume: I think their idea of a character change when he adopted the pseudonym was more of a formal excuse for not writing about ‘George Orwell’ than a genuine and sustained (albeit dubious) psychological hypothesis. Certainly in the Tribune columns he produced an ideal image of himself – the plain, blunt, free-speaking man of common sense and common decency, something that I call ‘Orwell-like’ in contrast to what ‘Orwellian’ meant after 1984: but this image was an extension of part of himself, not a mask. If he was role-playing a bit, it was with different proportions of genuine aspects of himself. I think of the late Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay on Abraham Lincoln, which describes how Lincoln, while an honest and straightforward man, quite consciously exploited ‘Honest Abe’ for political effect. Similarly, Eric Blair was always George Orwell for literary effect. So compelling did the name become, almost an English institution, that Sonia Brownell, Mrs Eric Blair, later – for a while – Mrs Pitt-Rivers, perhaps had very little choice but to adopt it.

The second problem peculiar to Orwell biography is that since his fame came late, many of those who wrote about him on the basis of personal acquaintance have at times been less than cautious in recalling precisely when it was they first got to know him. Perhaps it was because the man was so unusually private when writers are necessarily involved in self-publicity, and so irritatingly unwilling to talk about personal things, yet so interesting and provocative, that there was an unusual amount of rather dubious biographical interpretation right from the first reviews of his writings. Some people are surprised that I did not repeat important anecdotes they told me: but like a detective, the biographer must always seek corroboration – he can never rest a case on hearsay evidence. Rarely do people seek to deceive, even themselves. But it is to some quite an unholy thought that Orwell could have occasionally teased people, who either pressed him too hard or ignored him completely, by giving them deliberate pieces of misinformation. I don’t doubt that Orwell told Anthony Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge that he’d had a woman in the Park: but it is thin evidence that he did. I’m sure I’ve suppressed some revealing incidents that did take place. But, alas, I also discovered that several incidents to which people genuinely claim to have been eye-witnesses are in fact found in Orwell’s own writings. It is not merely that memory, over thirty or forty years, commonly matures and grows, and occasionally even decays, but that memories of a famous man in his days of obscurity can become badly confused by reading and recalling subsequent writings on him. The past is filtered through what one subsequently learns. Memories are extremely valuable evidence, but they are not history in themselves. I’m all for oral history, so long as people don’t think that its authenticity makes it true: it is only part of the evidence. Cherokee chiefs read books on anthropology before being interviewed by anthropologists, and distinguished men of letters reread their early essays on Orwell just before being interviewed and then recounted them with commendable accuracy and beguiling freshness. It is simply very difficult to get through to genuine remembrances or re-remembrances: people defend what they wrote long ago, however incomplete or inaccurate. Fred Warburg did not commission Orwell to go to Spain and write Homage to Catalonia, though in his memoirs he vividly remembered doing so, even supplying dialogue. But then publishers’ memoirs are in a world of their own.

The interviewer can only approach contradictions in the evidence, between what people once wrote and what is now known, with great delicacy. People don’t like being contradicted in their own homes. And, by the way, bearing in mind manuals that are from time to time written for research students, I would like to say that there is no such thing as a ‘structured interview’: if you try to impose a structure, you get very little beyond ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Most people, when interviewed, enjoy talking at large about Orwell – a discursive conversation takes place. But one is then in the world of an English novel, not in the interrogation cells of Darkness at Noon or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. People who knew him quite well before the brief days of his fame and had not written about him were rarer and in some ways more interesting witnesses. But sometimes I discovered afterwards that precisely because Orwell has become such a popular writer, they too, even the non-writers, had memories of Orwell or views about him that could only have been formed by subsequent reading. His sister, Avril, had plainly only glanced at some of his works in his lifetime and had not liked them. When I met her twenty years later, she had accepted that her brother’s fame was justified, had forgiven him, as she saw it, for letting the family down (his resignation from the Service, his tramping, his socialism, his poverty) and had become a cultivated and sensitive reader of his books, really worth talking to on many critical points; it was as if she had given herself an adult education from her brother’s work and the commentaries on it. But the sea-change also contaminated her memories of the past. Fortunately, she was interviewed at length by the BBC not long after Orwell’s death and those transcripts, while far less perceptive about the writer, contain the more authentic memories of the man.

I must emphasise that it was simply not possible, even for critics and scholars, to make a proper assessment of Orwell until the so-called Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of 1968 appeared; and by then most people had committed themselves and continued to defend entrenched positions. A new edition is now in preparation. This will be the chance for fresh critical assessments, especially as the Orwell papers at University College, London are at long last to be opened.

The third and last peculiarity of Orwell biography is the genre problem raised by some of his major works. As I said in my Introduction, I realised right from the beginning how complex was the relationship between his writings and his life. While the closeness of the relationship was generally appreciated, its complexity was less recognised, despite some clear warnings he himself gave. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he said of Down and Out in Paris and London that ‘nearly all the incidents described there actually happened, but they have been rearranged.’ That is why I cannot agree with Sonia when she said in her Introduction to the Collected Essays that all his novels, except Animal Farm and 1984, ‘contain straight descriptions of himself’, or that ‘a whole chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier suddenly turns into straight autobiography.’ The man was straightforward, but the writer was not naive. Each autobiographical passage serves a different literary and political purpose. Some of his friends from the brief days of his fame seem to have typecast him as the Douanier Rousseau of English letters, forgetting that he had gone to Eton – just as some art lovers were to forget that Stanley Spencer had been to the Slade.

So it is not easy to distinguish between the autobiographical ‘I’ and the storyteller’s ‘I’. When Penguin Books republished Down and Out in Paris and London during the war, the first printing was in the orange fiction covers: it was then reprinted in the famous non-fiction blue. Records have vanished. But I have some sympathy with what may have been a mistake at a rather low administrative level. Did all those people who told the author such lurid tales in Down and Out really exist? There’s no documentary evidence, but I would have bound the Penguin reissue in a candy stripe of orange and blue. For The Road to Wigan Pier there is more evidence: evidence which suggests that he did not invent, but that he did rearrange the order of events, touch up, skilfully heighten, and make the time-scales involved appear longer than they were – as George Painter said of Proust, ‘though he invented nothing, he altered everything’ – so a blue cover with an orange surround. For Homage to Catalonia there is quite as much evidence as for Wigan and all of it supports the most literal veracity of what he described: true blue all through. I suppose that since he was writing the book as a polemic against false pictures of war, he knew he must give opponents no possible opening to fault him on points of fact.

The sheer difficulty of how to use ‘Such, such were the joys’ as biographical evidence is still painful to me. The need to explore its truth carefully, since so much bad speculation about the genesis of 1984 has been built on it, held up the telling of a story and made the opening of my book hard to digest and contentious. Perhaps I should have ignored all those silly and arbitrary, or at least infinitely reversible, pseudo-Freudian short cuts, or looked at them in the light of Richard Ellmann’s marvellously sensible remarks on the subject, in Golden Codgers. I am nonetheless unrepentant: if ‘Such, such were the joys’ had been printed separately by Penguin, there could well be much blue on the cover, so long as there was a large and dramatic blob of cautionary orange as well. I see it as a polemic against private schooling based on his own experiences, but with fictional supports to widen the attack. Yet somehow the literal truth of it became an article of faith to some. My troubles with Mrs Orwell began here.

My helpers and I were to waste a lot of time trying to find from the Rangoon Times and the Mandalay Gazette whether an elephant was shot, and I certainly established from Burma Police manuals that someone in Blair’s job would have had no business at a hanging. But this kind of boring research is undertaken purely for the narrow purpose of recounting a life. It cannot affect our appreciation of Orwell’s art. May I quote from an essay by David Lodge: ‘When I first read “A Hanging” I certainly assumed it was a true story. The more I studied it, the more I suspected that Orwell had added or altered some details for literary effect, but I did not doubt that the piece was essentially factual and historical. I think this is probably the response of most readers.’ But Lodge then goes on to relate that Stansky and Abrams, in their biography, found a lady whom Orwell had told that he never saw a hanging, despite subsequently claiming to have done so twice more in print; and I found (unknown to Mr Lodge) another independent witness.

So there is at least an element of doubt about the eye-witness authenticity of ‘A Hanging’, a possibility that it is a fiction ...

  It is very unlikely, at this date, that we shall ever be able to establish definitely whether Orwell attended a hanging or not, and more or less impossible that we should ever be able to check the particular circumstances of ‘A Hanging’ against historical fact. It may be completely factual, it may be partly based on experience, or partly on the reported experience of others, or partly fictional, or wholly fictional – though the last possibility seems to me the least likely. The point I wish to make is that it doesn’t really matter. As a text, ‘A Hanging’ is self-sufficient, self-authenticating.

How strange that some have honestly thought that I was diminishing Orwell when I pointed out that some of the essays written in the first person are more like short stories than true confessions. His reputation must finally rest on his qualities as a writer, rather than as an exceptionally honest and decent human being. And despite his reputation as a writer, in the simple sense that so many people read him, some of his old friends, even Sonia Brownell, Cyril Connolly and Richard Rees, still felt, I suspect, so uneasy about the content of what he wrote, and so dissatisfied with his formal qualities as a novelist, that they made too much of the personal virtues at the expense of his literary craft. Part of his literary craft was the use he made of his own virtues and, of course, his own experiences: which makes it very difficult to tell fact from fiction. Certainly I did not always succeed. An artist deals in speculative truths, whereas a biographer must put himself under oath, however much at times that limits a good story.